Saturday, November 10, 2012

Video Stores: A Blink in Time

Movie buffs are fortunate to have lived during this time period, and the reason being the video store.

Video stores seem such an important part of our recent history, something that’s always been around. And yet, I was already born when the video stores first came out in the 1970s, I didn’t really know of their existence until the 1980s, particularly when chains started to appear, and more than likely I’ll outlive them, except maybe as nostalgia shop.  More than likely you’ll outlive them too, even if they were already around when you were born.

The format certainly changed. When I first started going to them, VHS tapes were the most common format, then I think there were a few beta tapes when I first started going to them as well.  A series of other formats would come and go and I would keep an eye out on them and see if they would create enough of a foothold.  Most of them were such small blips that I can’t recall them anymore. The one format that seemed to have a bit of legs as things progressed was the laserdisc, but I think the fact that they were the size of standard LPs prevented them from taking over, though they did fare better than most competitors to VHS.

Of course eventually DVD took over and a format switchover at the shops did truly gradually takeover due to the better picture and sound quality, compact size, and bonus features.  It wasn’t too long before we saw more competition. I can’t recall its name but there were smaller DVDs. And of course HD discs and blu-rays competed to replace DVDs with even better picture quality and sound. As with the VHS era I monitored the situation and even enough time blu-rays would have probably taken over. Wisely both HD and blu-ray players played regular DVDs as well.  But ultimately the true threat to DVDs, and to video stores proved to be the ability to download movies onto your computer, thus, for some, eliminating the need to leave home to rent movies.  It probably didn’t help things that you could also rent or buy DVDs online, which wouldn’t hurt DVD sales but certainly hurt the stores, but I believe it was the downloading that was the true nail. As I write this, video stores still exist but are gradually closing. I know of only one case of a store opening up in the last year (Movie House in Port Angeles reopened after a previous shutdown,) and that one closed down months later. I’m sure there are a few other aberrations like that but the trend is clearly heading to the end.

Which is a shame because video rental stores are fun.  You can wander the isles daring the covers to grab your eye. Sure you can do a keyword search, and sometimes a tiny icon will catch my eye on a screen, but it’s not the same as wandering around, seeing something catch the corner of my eye, and making me flip it over and read the back.  Part of it is tactile. Don’t get me wrong, my keyboard and mouse feel pleasant enough, but it’s fun to hold a variety of things in hand. I don’t need to feel the same thing all day.

And there’s also the exercise part. Actually getting off the sofa, walking or commuting to a chosen store and walking around.  Maybe doing other errands since you’re out and about movie hunting anyway (or the reverse).

There’s also the social element: talking with friends as you explore the shelves, sometimes walking with your friend, sometimes separating off and then doubling back when your friend just has to see this, either because it seems neat or you want to ask them why someone would make something like that. Seeing some movie you might want to watch playing as you browse. Talking with the staff, whose recommendations are probably more interesting to you than a computer’s critiquing.

Heck I even like the d├ęcor of most of them. A computer can’t give you a welcoming room to wander in. Hopefully you’ve made your own place look nice to you, but I’m betting you see it all the time anyway, right?  And it gives your eyes something different to look at. You have plenty of time to look at a screen when the movie’s playing. The store gives you something to look at that’s not a screen.

But the general public has chosen a different direction and while I’m disappointed, I respect the fact that something that I love is less important to others than the convenience of getting the movies from your own home. I’m not thrilled but I understand the logic.  My point isn’t to get all cranky but rather to celebrate that we lived (and for a little while longer still live) in an amazing time in one sense. We get an experience that most of our descendants will never get to experience, or will experience too early to process.  We got to experience a marvellous place called the video store, with shelves full of gateways to imaginative ideas.  I feel honoured to have been able to visit the stores, to have them be as big a part of my life as they have been, and I wish in writing this to convey just how much they’ve meant to me. And I hope that somehow this post survives for a couple of decades so that someone born too late to know firsthand what the experience was like to get a sense of an interesting footnote of a bygone era, a blink in time.

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